Donald Trump is leaving the scene as he entered it, playing the demagogue—an old term from the political science of Plato and Aristotle; it is their reproach to democracy. The demagogue is one who “acts for” the demos, giving a point to its attacking force against the upper class, the many against the few. In this view, democracy is the rule of the people in the interest of most people but not of all, as democracy wants to claim. The demagogue takes the part of the people in this adversarial sense. He appeals to their anger against “the establishment,” today’s name for the few. He doesn’t care what the establishment thinks; on the contrary, he wants nothing more than to oppose them. He loves to be loved by the people, all the more if he is loved in order to stick it to the rich and the privileged.
The charge incited by President Trump against the Capitol, holding most of the elected part of our government, is a pure instance of the demagogic action that the classic critics of democracy decried. Though old as the hills, this event of mob rule is unprecedented in America because our Founders took care in the Constitution they framed to prevent it above all other dangers. Demagogues want to bring government closer to the people, but in order to debase it and them, inciting people to their unruly worst.
The Constitution upholds popular election instead of mob rule. The purpose of an election is to bring the government close to the people just once, and then having voted, for them to give their elected representatives a generous term in which to govern. They govern in the name of the people, but instead of the people, and at some distance from them—a “constitutional distance,” one might call it. When Trump was elected, he profited from attaining the office that was intended to substitute for the demagogue, keeping him within bounds. Elected as a Republican, he had the Republican Party to supply him with principles and policies that limited the freedom of action that a demagogue seeks. True, he made the Republican Party conform to him to varying degrees, so that the party could be accused of enabling him. But it’s also true that he conformed to it—particularly in tax policy, foreign policy, and judicial appointments. And though Congress bent to him, he had to listen to it. The executive branch, as well, was not putty in his hands, but often reluctant and at times disobedient.
Even with his art of dealing, Trump was not able to deal with the Democrats and play them off against the Republicans because the Democrats undertook a “resistance” that forced him to stay with the party that he had originally taken over. His tweeting kept him at the center of attention and at the same time kept his supporters connected with him. He made them feel big, and at no cost to himself. His enemies either paid the bill for opposing him, or, like the Democratic media, profited—adding subscribers—by attacking him.
It was when Trump lost the election that he and at least some his supporters showed fangs. Who was worse, one can ask: Was it Trump himself, or his supporters, who actually charged the Capitol while he took to the safety of the White House? The ancient critics of democracy believed that it was the supporters, the demos, who were responsible; Trump was doing their bidding. We moderns are invested in democracy and want to blame the demagogue almost entirely. Trump is surely less honest than his troops, but that is perhaps a greater indictment of the quality of their honesty for such eager willingness that they showed to violate the law. His followers at the Capitol seemed to be as joyful as they were angry.
Our government is meant to be “wholly popular” in origin (says The Federalist), but entirely representative in operation. To keep our representatives in check, but also to give them scope to govern, we separate them into different branches and elect them from different states. Last week’s tumult shows what democracy can look like without an establishment, which is the same as without a Constitution. Republicans will perhaps judge Trump by his own standard as a loser, though a good part of them could wind up considering him by a higher standard, to which he is not entitled—as a noble loser. The noble loser in the Trump administration is not Trump but Vice President Mike Pence. It is Trump’s refusal to accept losing that makes him a loser. The last weeks of his term have spoiled his presidency.
To conclude with a silver lining to this dark event: It can teach all citizens, on the left and on the right, that at least in countries where there is other recourse, street protest is not the wonderful thing—the flowering of free speech—it has been cracked up to be.
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